The quiet, dogged man who helped bring peace to our island
This memoir by the deal-maker George Mitchell charts his career before and after the Good Friday Agreement
I once stood by an elevator in New York with Senator George Mitchell. I wanted to congratulate him on his work on the Northern Ireland peace process, but I didn't want to intrude. "Nonsense," said a friend, "he's a politician: he'd be well used to people coming up to him."
No doubt Mitchell was well compensated by other people coming up to him to give him credit, not least for his work on this island where he secured the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) in 1998 after patient and painstaking work to bring the historically antagonistic parties together. His very presence was an emollient.
He reminded me of my old yoga teacher, whose very voice and upright posture had an already soothing effect even before his pupils had hit the floor mat. Mitchell's soft voice, incredibly calm demeanour but clearly dogged determination brought Unionists and Republicans to a comprehensive agreement. He believed, as he writes here, in seeing all aspects of each side's case and working up a core of agreement. Gestures like those during the recent visit of Prince Charles are equally important.
In this memoir, Mitchell describes his time in Northern Ireland only briefly, given that he had already covered it in detail in an earlier account entitled Making Peace (2001). He describes being back in the US and hearing about the Omagh bombing, just a few months after the GFA and his concern that it would unravel all that had been achieved. It didn't, and in fact the barbaric work of dissidents only copper-fastened the peace.
Given his success with the North, it is perhaps not surprising that President Obama asked him to tackle the other great political impasse, the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. But the surprise is that he took the job. By 2009, he was an older man, and enjoying the retirement and free time that he denied himself (and his young family) during so much of his busy life. There is also the fact that the Middle East dispute is a much more intractable one than that in Ireland, given the utter lack of trust.
For example, Mitchell describes how almost impossible it was for things to proceed as long as the Israelis continued building settlements on occupied land. He even gives a long list of quotes to this effect by various US Presidents and politicians. But if this is the case, why doesn't the US demand a stop, or else abandon the peace process? It is one of the great mysteries of US foreign policy. And since Mitchell's failure in Palestine, there have been even more settlements and the chances of peace seem even more remote.
Of course, the Middle East situation is complicated by the post 9/11 situation and, disappointingly for one so sober and thoughtful, Mitchell seems, like so many Americans, to be in awe to the actual events of 9/11, spending pages describing the atmosphere in the lead up and aftermath of those dramatic attacks. Has there been a more impactful terrorist strike in history? Mitchell makes no mention of the Iraq invasion and its continuing fall-out: this is an account of his time and activity.
The Democrat Senator's calm and even humble demeanour probably has much to do with his background, coming from rural Maine - a sort of American Connemara - born to a Lebanese mother and a father who was the orphaned son of Irish immigrants. With their modest background, education was a key and after acquiring a degree, Mitchell served in Berlin in the 1950s, as a counter-intelligence officer, described in one of the most interesting parts of this book. He later became a trial lawyer in the US Justice Department and then was an assistant to Senator Edmund Muskie of Maine, who ran for US vice president in 1968, and for President in 1972.
When Muskie resigned to become Secretary of State, Mitchell was appointed to complete Muskie's unexpired term, and soon became a powerful force in the Senate. And a popular one: he was re-elected in 1988 with 81pc of the vote. The following year, he became Senate Majority Leader, where the skills he would later show in bi-partisanship and negotiation were already well evident, as he formed a good working relationship with the Republican party and in particular with the often hard-line Bob Dole. Not for him were the noisy but often wasteful politics of confrontation. He was a deal-maker, who made deals stick.
His greatest deal is on Northern Ireland, where the peace agreement really has endured, despite all the challenges. In 2011, he describes how he was contacted by UTV with a proposal for a TV documentary, charting a return visit by Mitchell to Northern Ireland, accompanied by his 14-year-old son. The idea was that he would be filmed meeting other children also born in 1997, and seeing how they have fared under the peace. In a powerful and moving account, he describes travelling the rainy countryside and even going to the 'new' Stormont Assembly to see normal parliamentary work in progress.
'Dad, this is boring,' his son tells him, but to Mitchell 'it was soothing, like music to my years.' The normality and security of peace: this is the legacy that this noble man has left us.
The Negotiator - Reflections on an American Life
George J Mitchell
Simon and Schuster, hdbk, 400 pages, £18.49